Here let me read it out for you. Ideal for the car, maybe not the spin class.
“I’ve Got A Joke For You”
Every job has its unique crosses to bear.
I was chatting with a comedian after his set at a corporate dinner. A couple of older gentlemen approached, bringing with them a small cloud of atomized Shiraz.
“I’ve got a joke for you,” said one, with a you’re in for a real treat look on his face.
He launched into a long joke from 1973 featuring strong misogyny themes, confused plots (“… no … wait a minute, Little Jimmy said that to the teacher not the other way around”) and rasping chuckles at his own material.
“Ha ha ha nice joke,” we nod politely.
“I’ve got another one,” he says.
Afterward I asked the comedian if that happened often.
“Every. Single. Time.” he said.
The jokesters were nice people, and meant well. But how comedians deal with the incoming material without screaming is beyond me. I guess the same way I coped with people telling me their genius ideas when I was making ads. It would always be a pun.
“So you’re working on insurance? I’ve got an ad for you. Someone’s going through all their insurance bills, and an actor in a bear suit walks in and rips them all up. Voiceover goes: Premiums More Than You Can Bear? Ha ha whaddya reckon?”
I’m not in advertising any more.
It’s time we had a chat about humor and jokes in the business world. In cocktail banter, in presentations, in marketing material. It’s a minefield of potential trouble and opportunities for people to see you at your worst.
The question must be asked: is humor actually the secret passport to charm and marketing success everyone seems to think it is?
Humor vs Jokes
Humor is a good thing, generally, though harder than you think. We’ll return to that.
Jokes are horrible, the tool of conversation hogs. Telling jokes in a large social setting is a massive dick move.
The worst jokester I ever encountered told non-stop gags to a group of 12 people HE’D NEVER MET at dinner, in a remote guesthouse with no possibility of escape. None of his jokes ran under three minutes. What took it to the next level was him telling them all in the first person. So as each joke rolled out you thought: maybe this one is a story that really happened.
“So I was in Africa on safari with some friends, when out of nowhere a lion popped up…”.
But then it led into a joke straight from the Drunk Uncles’ Book Of Guaranteed Side-Slappers. It was the longest night of our lives.
Telling jokes is the same as pulling out an acoustic guitar at a party. Worse actually, because jokesters don’t provide anything that can be smashed over their head.
Want to be charming when you’re out there networking? Please don’t tell jokes. Read this (Conversation Is Not Poker: 3 Essential Charm Tips) and do those things instead.
Speech Humor: Do You Have What It Takes?
Peak Joke Nightmare is presenters ‘warming up’ an audience with a joke. They get up on stage, pulsing with nerves, and deliver some ‘icebreaker’ they searched online like:
“Of all the introductions I’ve received, that was by far the most recent.”
They look up from their notes for the response. Deep space silence. Just the faint hum of the air conditioning, and their elevated heartbeat as the bombed-joke adrenaline surge kicks in. Which ensures the rest of the talk is tense and stilted.
The traditional wisdom from the three billion presentation advice blogs out there is to “use anecdotes with self-deprecating humor to make the audience like you. Because there’s no punchline, if nobody laughs, you just move on.”
That’s sort of true. But can you pull it off? Take this vital test.
Ask yourself: do I ever make people laugh in a social setting?
If so, great. Work out what sort of material gets the laughs. Was it a story? Comic exaggeration or understatement? Fresh, sharp observations about everyday life? Find your style, and try that out on a larger audience.
If you’re not a proven humor-bringer in small groups, just don’t try it on stage. It simply won’t work. That’s cool, there are plenty of other ways to be a compelling presenter. Sir David Attenborough doesn’t do humor: case closed.
Marketing Humor: The Dark Urge For Puns
Everyone, except those who know what they’re doing, believes marketing should get people’s attention via jolly jokes and wordplay. No. Marketing messages should show how your product alone can solve people’s problems, in as few words as possible.
Yet some dark instinct draws business people to the cheapest humor mechanism there is: the pun.
How does a global pharmaceutical approve a headline like “The misery of hay fever is nothing to sneeze at”? That’s a real ad.
Or this, from Subway:
I know marketing Subway coffee is always going to be a stretch. But the brand is basically your Dad reading out Christmas cracker jokes. Using capitals for BEAN just makes it worse. You can practically hear a cartoon boing sound effect. It’s not clever, it’s not funny and it’s not selling your coffee.
Compare this creaky effort with this beautiful bit of work, completely free of jokes or “the finest blends” sort of superlatives:
Whose coffee are you buying? There is a time and a place for puns in marketing: never and nowhere.
Can Adults Learn Humor?
I wish I could give you a 10-point Guaranteed Ways To Become Humorous checklist.
There are many skills you can pick up from how-to articles and videos. SEO. Video editing. Drawing a dinosaur.
Humor is like playing the piano on stage, driving a racing car, or getting innocent people acquitted in court. You see it on TV and think: doesn’t look so hard. I could do that. You probably know people who use exactly those words every time they see a modern artwork that they couldn’t have done.
Professionals make really hard things look easy. Because they’ve spent a lifetime refining their craft. In the case of comedians, alone in front of brutal audiences that pivot between indifferent and abusive.
There is no guaranteed humor process that can be replicated or scaled so that Gary from admin can do it.
I could try analysing my favorite-ever New Yorker cartoon, a process that will straight-up murder every bit of joy in this masterpiece.
*Strokes academic beard* The cartoon combines two humor techniques. One: context swap, the familiar object (Lassie) placed in an unfamiliar setting (psychiatrists couch) for humorous effect. Two: the dual interpretation of ‘get help’ leads to a different outcome to the reader’s expectation and providing effective humor.
Also, both those points also apply to that horrendous bear-suit insurance ad idea.
Humor is just one skill that you should use at work if you have it, like numeracy, dress sense or a great memory for names. If you don’t have it, it’s fine.
If you’re an adult and you don’t have humor skills by now, the odds are well against you getting them now. Sure if you studied it hard, watched hundreds of standup comedians on Youtube and did theatersports at night, but where are you going to find the time on top of your other insane business and personal commitments?
Don’t feel you have to do things because some trainer told you they were desirable. Just work to your strengths.
Humor As Harassment
Let’s finish with a trawl through the Everyday Workplace Humor HR Complaint files.
There’s a type of person whose chosen joke structure is:
- Some gross insult
- A pause, then …
- “Just joking!” and a wink and shoulder pat
People who do this 100% mean that insult literally, and think they’re getting away with it in the same way people say “no offence but”.
The joke is often based around some minority group characteristic. It’s trying to show that we’re all mates here because that’s what mates do, insult each other har har har so you’re in the mates club now.
That’s not always how it gets received, mate.
Good humor punches up, not down. Aim your barbs at the boss, the government, social influencers, business bloggers. There is no humor in taking down people worse off or with less power than you.
If you have to say “just joking!” more than once a week, odds are you are a dickhead and should take a hard look at your joking habits.
Wow that’s a bit of a stern note to end on, better add this Big Red Rock Eater because it’s my earliest memory of humor and I still love it so much.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like Stop Saying How Busy You Are.
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